Ypres Rally Belgium. Thierry Neuville country, literally. Craig Breen territory. Somewhere Elfyn Evans will excel. Somewhere Ott Tänak did excel. A place where Kalle Rovanperä was halted but where Oliver Solberg shone with a career best World Rally Championship finish.
But Solberg wasn’t the only one rewriting their own WRC record book. Car #4 finished in third position, and recorded his second consecutive podium finish for the first time in his career.
Was this the most unexpected result of Esapekka Lappi’s WRC career? A career that yielded a WRC victory after just four top-class starts.
Hear me out.
I was having a conversation with somebody who certainly knows their stuff, a week or so before Ypres. Lappi’s name came up, and the consensus was simple. He’d be nowhere. “Lappi isn’t a Tarmac driver,” they said.
I didn’t really have a rebuttal. The form book suggested that Ypres wasn’t going to be Lappi’s rally.
Although he had been there before, it was all the way back in 2014 – and he crashed on the ninth stage. He was therefore down on experience and perhaps down on prowess, having scored just one podium on asphalt before. And again, that was back in 2018.
But what about those drivers that were supposed to do well?
And the driver we weren’t expecting anything from? Never outside the top five.
But this was no smash and grab. The strength of Lappi’s Ypres pace was deeply impressive. He wasn’t on the ultimate pace, but right from the beginning he perfectly positioned himself as the best of the rest and firmly kept himself there.
It may have been overlooked as the weekend wore on given the rally leader retired twice and one by one the M-Sport Fords all folded, but Lappi was always there.
If we were in Scandinavia, like we were earlier in the month in Finland, we’d expect that. But on a demanding Tarmac rally? It’s not where he’s made his name – even if one of his best ever performances was victory on the 2014 Circuit of Ireland in a Škoda.
It was such an effective drive that Lappi was barely spoken about throughout the entire Ypres weekend. That might sound like a back-handed compliment, but if you’re not being spoken about you’re not doing anything wrong.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Lappi was expected to mess up in Belgium, but on each of the WRC events bar Sweden he’s started this season, he’s made some sort of error at some point over the weekend.
Finland is the case-in point, where on course for an easy podium Lappi made life harder for himself with that dramatic roll and run through the powerstage without a windscreen or a roof!
That wasn’t far from Lappi’s mind when he reflected on his Ypres podium.
“Very satisfied but it’s less PR [than Finland]!” he laughed.
“It is not so extreme, less media time, you know. I don’t know, it’s not so interesting!”
Well, EP, here’s your media time. You were absolutely brilliant in Ypres, perhaps more so than even you seem to realize.
“Everybody saw our pace was not really great,” he said. “Maybe we could hold on with Craig in that fight like yesterday [Saturday but] with all the other cars in front we had no chance.”
Lappi believed he “deserved fifth place” but a podium?
“I take it as it is, but it is a big surprise.”
Patience, however, was key.
“We were smarter than the others, “Lappi conceded. “We didn’t do mistakes, so that led us here.
“This rally bites hard many times. Eight years ago I was fighting for the win and then I crashed.
“This time I didn’t want to do it again and now the patience paid off, so it’s nice.”
It was nice for Toyota too. With its usually reliable superstar out on the second stage, suddenly Lappi was automatically relied on to bank manufacturers’ points for the team. And his third place did exactly that, helping Toyota outscore Hyundai despite Hyundai’s Tänak winning the event.
Team principal Jari-Matti Latvala was certainly impressed: “He has done a perfect job for our team, exactly what we wanted, what we needed,” he said.
But Lappi doesn’t view his performance as anything sensational.
“That’s why we are hired,” he said. ” We can only try to do more but at the moment we just did what we needed to.
“Kalle crashed and we bagged the points, so it’s good.”
But this was more than good, this was accomplished. This was encouraging. This was pleasantly unexpected.
And it all bodes well for the future.
“Let’s say it’s looking good,” Lappi smiled, when asked by DirtFish about 2023.
“After these podiums, for sure it looks good.”
Next time, we’ll be sure not to write you off so soon Mr Lappi.